In a Washington Post article (1991), “The Pleasure Principle in Exercise,” the author provides a “research review” on the importance of enjoying exercise in order to persist with it:
“study after study shows that the people who stick with exercise are the ones who truly enjoy their activity. They don’t view their workout as one more chore to cram in but as a play break that’s one of the highlights of their day” (p.4).
This article, published around the time I was in high school, reflects what I have been told for years: ideally, exercise evokes the fun of childhood play and creates a rush of endorphins. Exercise should feel good.
But I recently realized this narrative doesn’t fit with my experience. Starting in middle school (think fitness testing, track and field, etc.), I often felt like exercise sucked. Tired, out of breath, achy. I knew I should exercise, that I should like it, but in fact the effort didn’t feel pleasant. Teenage me thought: why pursue bodily discomfort on purpose? So when high school gym class finally became optional, I stopped exercising altogether.
Mental Aspects of Physical Fitness
The disconnect I have felt—between how I should and did feel about exercise as a young person—was made clear to me during my first meditation weekend. It turns out I have had different ideas about meditation as well. I thought meditation was like a car wash: you went into it feeling dirty and unhappy, and somehow came out feeling shiny, happy, and clean.
Meditation, it turns out, is more about noticing what I am feeling and experiencing (good, bad, different), then leaning into that experience. Meditation involves concentrating on letting go of judgements, expectations, and the need to change what can sometimes be difficult feelings and bodily sensations. Meditation is a kind of mental playbook for managing how to show up for sometimes uncomfortable situations or emotions.
Mindfulness, the “noticing” part of meditation practice, can be taken to other activities (I further learned). It’s why, I put together, there are so many mental “check-ins” during yoga practice. Noticing tension and discomfort at its first sign can help me to be present in–but without automatically seeking to judge, avoid, or change–what I am experiencing (unless there is pain that will imminently lead to injury, of course). And, indeed, I did find through our yoga practice that it was much easier to handle discomfort in my body when I noticed and accepted that it was there.
There are critiques of mindfulness, namely as a self-help discourse that convinces stressed out folks collective suffering is in their heads rather than a societal issue. I don’t disagree with concerns about how meditation and mindfulness are (mis)understood and (mis)used in Western culture, but I am still learning about them as they relate specifically to my own fitness practices, so for now I am keeping an open mind.
Mindfulness During Exercise
When I was a kid I didn’t have a mental playbook when I wasn’t loving the exercise I was told I should be loving. Without a mindful approach, I immediately leaned away from the tension and discomfort caused by physical exertion and effort.
Now, in my mid-life, I think the so-called “pleasure principle of exercise” is wrong for me. As I continue to explore physical activities (many for the first time in a long time), I am not going to try to convince myself that exercise will always be a “play break” or a “highlight of my day.” (Sam looks at some actual research in her post Rationality and the Hatred of Exercise.)
Instead, I am going to try to be mindful: to notice and accept the tension, discomfort, and other sensations I feel whilst being physically active. I am going be try to be really present when my exercise sucks.
Ironically, it may be precisely the goal of seeking to notice my discomfort (rather than striving for its enjoyment) that may get me to exercise more often. I’ll let you know how it goes.
What better place is there for a sunny and warm US Memorial Day holiday than the water? That’s just what I thought, so I went paddling with friends Deb and Tim and their teenagers Mari, Leah and Jacob (who actually just turned 20, but who I’ll refer to as teen for the purposes of this blog post), as well as their dog Ruby, who is turning 7 soon.
It was Tim’s birthday, so he planned a group paddle trip with the current down the Concord River in Massachusetts. We left cars at put-in and planned take-out spots, and then launched a) two inflatable tandem kayaks; b) one inflatable rowboat; and c) my sleek lightweight zippy carbon/kevlar 13′ kayak. Off we went.
There was paddling. There were hijinks. There were photo ops. There were snacks.
Ruby the dog liked to keep herself moving, preferably between boats. She moved nimbly, but sometimes resorted to swimming (with her doggie life vest). My narrow boat was a no-go. That didn’t stop her from trying, though.
About an hour or so into the trip, though, the teens began to tire. Admittedly, wrangling the inflatable kayaks is difficult– they simply aren’t made for speed or distance, and they’re difficult to steer, too. And the inflatable rowboat? Fugetaboutit.
I had an idea: I’d practiced towing another kayak in a Maine weekend course. But I didn’t have a tow line. Rats! Luckily, Tim came prepared with lots of rope. So we tied one kayak to the stern of mine, and I began paddling. Turns out it was way easier than I thought. Yay! And, it was much easier to paddle in a straight line while towing than not while towing. Great!
We tried rotating the kids into different boats to take breaks. Deb hosted her son Jacob, who was in turn hosting Ruby in one of the inflatables.
Then, about 30–40 minutes later, more teens got tired and our pace slowed to a crawl. The charm of the wildly careening inflatables was wearing off, and the kids just wanted to head down the river. No amount of snack application was working. Fair enough. So, Tim once again dug into his backpack of treasures and came up with more rope, this time tying the rowboat to the kayak (which was tied to my kayak). I restarted paddling.
This time it was harder, and I made very slow progress. But it was forward motion and it was sustainable over the next couple of hours. Check out the picture below for verifiation.
Tim and I decided it was best to take out at the next big landing. We arrived, and some of us stayed with the gear while others took an Uber to get the other car at the desired but un-reached take out spot. Hey, it happens, right? (Raise your hand or comment below if you’ve had this experience.)
We all made it home, considerably later and considerably hungrier than we expected, but none the worse for wear. It was a really fun time, with lots of laughs, some snacks, great weather, serious energy output, and some lessons learned. Here are my takeaways:
I can paddle for longer than I thought, even when it’s not as fun and I’m going slowly. This lesson may be applicable to other areas of my life, maybe…
I’m getting a tow line for my next trip– you wear it around your waist so you can attach and detach yourself from the line.
Slowing down the process of getting into my kayak worked very well. I kinda wish I had done the same with the getting-out process; I might’ve ended up less wet and smelly. Duly noted.
Bringing in-case gear, especially since it’ll fit in my boat’s rear hatch, is a good thing. I’ll be bringing extra rope and bungee cording, a knife, bug spray, headlamp, extra snacks, space blanket, an extra-extra bottle of water, and probably a few other things for all my kayak trips.
Every active trip I take– by land, sea or air– is going to be am opportunity for learning something new. Janet suggested I document my kayak outings with what happened, how it went, and what I learned. Imma do that.
I’ll bring a map next time. And the time after that. and so on.
Hey readers: any anecdotes about over- or under-shooting pickup or car locations during hikes, paddles, etc.? I bet you’ve got some good stories, which I’d love to hear about.
Joanne Tarvit has grown up curling competitively, just like Dale Curtis, her mother. This interview shares what it’s like for them to curl together as a family, what curling teaches kids, and how women can thrive in curling at any stage of life. The full recorded interview is below the edited transcript.
Would you describe how long you’ve curled and your greatest curling accomplishment?
Dale Curtis: I’m not sure I want to say! It’s probably been 55 years. I think I only missed one season when I was living down in the United States. My greatest accomplishment in curling would be when I went to senior women’s nationals in Ottawa as skip.
Joanne Tarvit: I’ve been curling for 28 years. Mom had me on the ice when I was about 5 and I don’t think I’ve missed a season. My greatest accomplishment in my curling career would be winning back-to-back silver medals at the Canadian National Championship with a group of girls from Brock. They’re a great team.
How long have you curled together, and when did you start?
Joanne: This is our fourth season playing together weekly at the St Thomas Curling Club, but we’ve been playing bonspiels together for 20 years.
Dale: I introduced Jo to curling when she was 3 or 4 years of age. My brother David, her uncle, was Icemaker at two different clubs in Brampton and we lived close together. The ice was installed in September or early October, and I would often help because it can be a 24-hour job. Jo would come with me. David would actually sit her on the rocks and push so she could ride them down the ice!
Then we got Jo on the ice at 5, and I was an instructor in the Little Rocks program. The rocks the children use are about half the size and weight of the regular rocks that adults throw. It was a bit later, when she was skipping a team of kids at 9 or 10, and was handling the pressure of it all, that I thought, oh she can really do this!
Joanne: At our home curling club in Brampton, it was my mom, uncle, and grandparents as well! I felt a lot of pride knowing that my family was curling there and now, it was my turn. So I absolutely loved it as a kid. I was so lucky that mom was willing to come out, not just for those two hours on a Sunday afternoon for the Little Rocks but really anytime. I would want to go throw and she’d be like, yep let’s go and practice. I had a parent who not only loved the game but was really good at the instruction side of it as well when I was young.
As I got more into the competitive side of the game, around 12 and 13, I started to feel a little more pressure, but only because our whole family has many provincial championship banners hanging out at the club. It was a constant reminder. At one point in our life we had three generations, all playing on the same team in a bonspiel, so those are some really special memories for us.
What does curling teach kids like Joanne who play at a young age?
Dale: A curling team is only four players, so the team dynamics are much different than hockey teams or basketball teams. Curling teaches kids about their responsibility to the team, to the importance of committing for the season.
The game itself is played over at least two hours, so patience is involved, too. When the game is not going your way, you have to learn to control yourself emotionally, to set little goals for yourself. Emotional control is so important because the game is not over until it’s over. Kids have to learn that their body language on the ice affects their teammates. It teaches young people about sportsmanship. So I think curling really does teach a lot of life skill lessons for young people.
Joanne: I will add there is kind of a leadership element to it as well, one that doesn’t necessarily have to come solely from the skill position, like a captain. Every player in curling has a unique role, so they need to be able to bring positivity to their position. Curling has really helped me in many aspects in life, knowing that I can bring something positive to a team or group of friends, or just collaborate well with whoever I work with.
Is it challenging for kids to acquire those self-regulation and interpersonal skills in curling?
Dale: Yes, and you see it in the youngsters when they’re first starting out. We have a lot of broom banging when kids don’t make their shots or the game isn’t going their way. I think that’s why Jo likes the sweeping aspect to the game rather skip because sweeping offers an emotional release.
Joanne: Absolutely I was a broom slammer. I’ve slowly moved away from it, but every now and then I’ll still let one slip. So self awareness and being able to use strategies to work through that frustration, because you still got another rock to throw or you’ve got six other rocks that you have to have to play. You have to learn to be able to forget quickly. Curling has been the catalyst that has helped me learn that whenever I am stressed or any kind of anxiety comes up, my best release is any kind of physical activity.
Now that you are both adults, what is it like curling on the same team?
Joanne: We have been able to play together since I was 10. And now into my 30s being able to do that still and at a fairly good level has been a ton of fun. We could be continuing to do this for the next 20 years if mom wants to. It’s creating memories. We talk about bonspiels and events all the time around the dinner table. I think one thing we do have to be careful is that not everyone in the family curls so not that our dinners shouldn’t be solely about curling, but it does tend to happen.
One thing that’s unique about playing together is that we’ve watched each other play, well, for my entire life, at least, and so we know what it looks like when each other has a really good throw. We are able to provide that deep level of feedback.
Dale: For me, there’s not too many people that I would even ask about how I’m throwing. Jo’s coaching and training has given her as much of a critical eye as I have, I would say. So I trust the feedback I’m getting from her, probably more than anybody else in the club.
When I’m skipping and Jo’s throwing I trying to give her feedback as to what I’m seeing. I can be far more direct with Jo, and possibly not always as positive, in part because most other people are not curling at the same level that Jo is. So I think, maybe that comes with the territory—the higher elite curlers want more direct feedback.
Joanne: Once in awhile it’d be nice to know that I’m doing something right, mom! [laughs]
But, yeah, every game we play is an opportunity to practice and to learn. Mom has a very important competition coming up, so I have been trying to use these games to remind her of habits for keeping sharp. It’s a long season, and you can get what we call “lazy on technique.” So, I help to support her competitive game when we play.
Are there advantages or disadvantages playing together as mother and daughter?
Joanne: Like any kind of teammate, any relationship dynamic, you’re going to have good days and you’re going to have your bad days. There’s the odd day that we’re really not on the same page, and there’s frustration there. But I think, because we’re family, it rolls off the shoulder, so we’re like, “All right well, love ya.”
Having played with mom and watching her, I know her body language and style of strategy. When it comes to calling shots not a whole lot has to be said at times. But I’m also really comfortable at letting her know when I don’t think that’s the call here, and we should go with something else.
Dale: We know each other so well that I think that, at times, our emotions aren’t as much in check with each other as they would be with another teammate. We can be more raw with each other. If I’m in a bad mood, Joanne’s going to know about it, whereas if it was another teammate they may not know that I was in a bad mood as much.
Why is curling a good sport for fitness and health?
Dale: Curling is a wonderful sport to get involved in from a social aspect and from a fitness aspect. It is something you can do at any time during your life that you know we can adapt body types, to the skill at any at any age.
Joanne: Yes, the incredible thing about it is that you can start when you’re five or you can start when you’re 60. It’s a welcoming sport—there’s a spot for everybody in curling. And it’s more of a workout than most people think actually! I know when I come up from sweeping I’m usually huffing and puffing and working to get my heart rate back down.
The amount of empowerment that really comes with playing as a female I think is a ton of fun, because we can play the game right alongside the men, right alongside anybody. It really doesn’t really make a difference who you are in this sport. Everyone can play.
How important are role models for women who curl?
Joanne: Growing up as a young female we always were able to watch the Scotties, which is the national curling event. It always had air time and it was on every single year, and I think that’s unique when it comes to women in sport. For young girls who are playing hockey, I feel like the only time they get to see their idols play is every four years of the Olympics. So I felt very fortunate that I got to watch my idols every year compete at the Scotties and they’ve just constantly been adding women’s events to slams. Today, it seems like once a month you’re watching women on TV play. Other women play on TV, so I had something to watch and strive for.
Dale: I sort of went through the same thing when I was growing up. My mother ran the junior program at our club. I played with my mother in a regular league at the club for many, many years, and we did bonspiels together. It’s part of our family tradition that we’ve grown up with, and I’ve learned that nothing has to stop curling! I remember when my brother and I would miss our family Christmas dinners because we’d be playing or training and it was never really questioned. We were supported.
No matter what your life situation is, you should still be able to play. I curled when I was pregnant. As long as you’re healthy, you can just modify your delivery a bit so there’s no issue. I mean your body balance is actually lower as you go through your pregnancy, so it makes it quite easy really as long as you’re healthy and can keep your leg strength up. It’s great!
Joanne: Yeah I blame mum for my cold hands and feet, nowadays, because she played so long into her pregnancy with me that I was so close to the ice all the time!
What’s one piece of advice you have for each other about curling?
Dale: I just hope that if Jo wants to continue her competitive path that she’s able to find a team that can showcase her talent, whether she makes it to the Scotties or whatever. I hope she continues to love the game and pursue what she loves. Whether it takes her to a high competitive area, or to continue doing club curling, she should do what she is passionate about.
Joanne: For mom’s upcoming competition, I’d say just soak up the experience! I know how competitive my mom is because I get it from her. So I say enjoy it and not worry too much about the wins and losses. They’re going to come either way because it’s sport and it happens. You’re playing on a world stage, so make memories and enjoy every single moment of fun.
Oh, and have a good sharp release every time.
See the full video recording of our interview [32:50].
Recently some adult folks and I celebrated a friend’s birthday outside at a park in the snow. We simple played kid outdoor games: a team tossing game, a ball relay, and a good ol’ fashioned snowball fight. We ran around, egging on members of the other team, getting soaked. It was hilarious and silly and fun.
Playing outdoor kid games can bring a swell of nostalgia for games in the school yard, the backyard, the park, the lot, the court, or the field. Those games taught us important lessons (good and bad) that we remember throughout our adult lives.
I decided to describe and rank various types of kids outdoor games that can be and still are played by adults. Inter-rater reliability (i.e. with my partner) for the aspects of each game type (e.g., high, medium, or low) was about 92%.
What is your favourite outdoor kid game or game type, and why? Reply in comments below!
These games that pay attention to detail and precision. They have rules and specialized equipment, and may be played individually or in teams. It’s usually the accuracy games that adults want to play to show kids that they’ve still “got it.”
Snowball/Water Balloon Fights
Snowball and water balloon fights have few rules and are generally a free-for-all of silliness. Often, one need not be the strongest or fastest participant: those who create their own strategy (or find good hiding places) can fare well.
Be careful in these games around those who wear glasses. In northern or southern climates, less popular in Spring/Fall.
Examples: Lost on an island, Cowboys, Fashion show, etc.
Imagination games (also known as “pretend” or “make believe”) are for those who want to escape rule-bound games with winners and losers that require equipment and physical skill or strength.
In imagination games, anyone with creativity and a playful attitude can participate.
Examples: Red rover, tug of war
Simple, straightforward us-vs-them team games, where the most important rule is…be the strongest and win! Expect the occasional skin burn or scratch.
Sometimes these games can get violent–it was this aspect of tug of war that was emphasized by Netflix’s Squid Game (2021).
Organized Sports Games
Examples: Flag football, baseball, dodgeball, kickball, soccer
Organized sports build skill, stamina, and teamwork. They create opportunities for life-long bonding. But being group-based, rule-bound, and equipment-heavy, these serious games can separate casual from competitive players.
Also, no one likes to be picked last for a team.
Speed Relay Games
Examples: Relays (e.g., egg and spoon race), potato sack racing
Individual or team-based–and often requiring nothing more than a ball, a baton, or a sack–speed relay games can bring the best of a group of people working together.
These games can be not so fun for folks who may struggle to keep up or who take relays too seriously.
Tag and Strategy Games
Examples: Tag, Capture the Flag, Musical Chairs, Red Light-Green Light, Hide and Seek
Combining the skill of accuracy games, the endurance of strength games, and the creativity of imagination games, tag and strategy games can utilize diverse talents. These games attract those who enjoy being the last one standing.
One of the things I was most excited about when tiny human was born was eventually introducing him to water by means of baby swimming. What I had in mind was more or less what the cutie in this video is doing: splish splash!
But alas, tiny human is a pandemic baby. For the longest time, pools were closed altogether, and even now many places that usually offer baby swimming courses still don’t. The few that do are ludicrously oversubscribed (or offer their classes during working hours, which – baby activities during working hours in general – pisses me off no end and is a topic for a separate rant). So, no baby swimming for us. Out of all the baby-related things the pandemic has deprived us of, this is the one that makes me really sad.
I’m still determined for this baby to be an aquatic baby. I watch the websites offering baby swimming courses like a hawk to see if they’re coming back on. We’ve taken Mini to the pool a few times (loved it until he got cold) and he tested the sea while on holiday (he was sceptical but loved messing around with his uncle and aunt in the water). We have a paddling pool on the terrace we were hoping to get a lot of use out of, but our summer has been horrible and it’s been too cold most of the time. So we still mostly splash around in the bath, which is… not quite the same.
Overall, introducing baby to water isn’t going as swimmingly (see what I did there?) as I’d hoped. Still, I’m not too worried yet, he’s tiny and will hopefully have plenty of opportunity to get wet. I do worry about older kids who haven’t been able to learn swimming or continue. From what I can tell with my lifesaving club, which cautiously started practice again in early summer, many of them aren’t coming back after such a long break. My colleague’s daughter, who used to swim regularly, became a body-conscious teenager during Covid and refuses to go back to the pool. My heart breaks for her. And all that’s without even thinking what it will mean for drowning incident numbers if several cohorts worth of kids aren’t learning to swim (properly).
I don’t quite know where this post is going, just that I’m sad for all the kids who don’t have the chance to enjoy the pleasure of getting in the water now. Ugh 😦
My partner and I bought ourselves two things for Christmas this year: a hoover (vacuum) robot and a running/bike trailer to take the little human on sporty adventures with us. So on Boxing Day, we ventured out for our first run as three, which was also my first run since I was 28 weeks pregnant. It was So! Much! Fun!, even though I’m very much out of shape. No regrets on spending our hard earned euros on this new plaything! The small human enjoyed it too, or at least he didn’t complain and even fell asleep.
Hooray for getting my identity as a runner back, and for making the little one part of it!
I am a recreational climber. I bouldered through both of my pregnancies. As my pregnancy advanced, I gained weight and muscle mass in proportion to each other, or so it seemed at the time. My center of gravity shifted forwards, and my body shape pushed me farther away from the wall, but I was still able to move my body in this familiar way, in a familiar setting, even as my body became less and less familiar. I primarily shifted to traversing (climbing sideways, rather than upwards), and I down climbed rather than jumping on the few (very easy) vertical bouldering problems that I still felt comfortable on.
My first pregnancy was in parallel with Beth Rodden’s pregnancy, so from my second semester onwards, I was following her blog for posts about climbing when pregnant, and fortnightly interviews with climbers and mountaineers about their pregnancy experiences. The interviews gave me some previews of what postpartum climbing or climbing with kids might be like. I read about professional and amateur climbing mothers from around the world, and the variety of ways that climbing became part of their postpartum and family life. It gave me a little preview of the different ways that it might be difficult, but might still be possible to keep climbing once I had kids. The differences and diversities were as important as the similarities.
Even so, I was still surprised to experience a complete loss of technique and muscle tone postpartum, with both of my pregnancies. My climbing gym had a mother and baby climbing group with an instructor, which was a very positive experience for me, but essentially required me to learn how to climb all over again with what felt like a third unfamiliar body. Although I had climbed all through my pregnancy, I still experienced a significant loss of core and ab strength. Basically, stretching your abdominals outward for a prolonged period of time, or adding a substantial amount of weight that sits on your pelvic floor, changes those muscle groups one way or another. Climbing postpartum was difficult in unexpected ways. In terms of the logistics of climbing, there were two primary changes:
(1) I couldn’t use lower abs to raise my legs, especially on an overhanging climb, and
(2) I found it difficult to use core strength to keep myself on the wall.
Essentially, I had to learn how to climb with yet another new body (although this time it was on very little sleep and a base level of constant exhaustion). I found some resources to help me out. Beth Rodden’s postpartum posts continued, and chronicled her very difficult postpartum recovery. The relevant part of the blogosphere has grown in the past several years, and I think this advice is really sensible. Especially this: keep making plans, and keep trying, because “The more times you try, the more times you will actually get some climbing done”.
Here are some of the techniques that my mom and baby climbing class helped me develop:
Concentrate on volume rather than difficulty to begin with. I would aim to climb all of the easy climbs in the gym (V0 and V0- especially), and potentially climb them twice.
Climb as many (easy) problems as possible within a very short timer (e.g. 5 minutes) then do active rest for longer (7 minutes), and you will avoid ‘cooling down’ between climbing reps.
Reps on an easy climb (up and down) to build endurance.
Do some core and conditioning during rest periods (e.g. plank for 1 minute, V-sits, squats holding a baby, wall sits for 1 minute, piston squats, etc). Or, just do some kegels, if that works for you.
Mostly ignore overhanging problems until other techniques are back, although using overhanging problems for lower ab workout (basically reps of hang from straight arms and try to raise one or both legs) was a way to check in with conditioning.
Somewhere along the way, I read and heard about a number of people who took parental leave trips to climbing destinations. Two or three families in my climbing circle did extended road trips through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Colorado, Utah, California, and other climbing destinations in the US. My partner was able to take an extended parental leave, and we ended up spending most of it in a series of climbing destinations. The highlight was spending nearly 2 months in Fontainebleau with an 8-9 month old, and it was motivating from the moment we booked the flight. Climbing with a baby in Font is such an absolute delight. (It was also an excellent lesson in comparative European parental leave policies.) There are guidebooks that rate climbing areas around Fontainebleau by stroller friendliness, list rest day activities by children’s ages, and highlight gites with high chair and crib availability. It was such a delight, in fact, that we have been back to Font 3 more times over the last several years, and we are not alone.
I think, essentially, that climbing postpartum made me feel like I was part of a community much more so than any other postpartum activity I did. I attended mom and baby yoga, caregiver and baby story time at the library, and a couple of different parent and baby community health groups. But climbing was the one where I felt the most connected to the other adults in the group. And, it turns out, that climbing with kids has given me access to another supportive community.
Jenny Szende is a philosopher, writer, climber, cyclist, and mother based in Toronto.
In its latest update Zwift announced a new workout collection called, Baby on Board. It’s a workout collection consisting of shorter workouts for expectant moms, new parents, or any riders who are looking for “a less intense, yet still motivating, workout.” There are lots of choices, 24 new workouts to choose from. I’m often looking for something shorter to fit into the middle of my day, and/or good recovery day options. I think I might try one! You can read in Zwift Insider about the new release.
“Organized Chaos” sounds good!
Jennifer Szende, a sometimes guest blogger here, brought the new series to my attention. We both agreed that it could wrong in a variety of ways but mostly Zwift seems to be getting inclusion right.
She writes, “I would have killed for this much online, accessible content when I was on maternity leave. This many people checking in. This many ways to feel connected while stuck at home. So, I can see ways that it could be done badly, but am hopeful that it would help a lot of people to feel seen.”
I’ve been enjoying the recognition on Zwift that some people are choosing to ride inside because they’re parents. One of my favourite group rides is the DIRT ride. I thought mtb bikes but no, it’s Dads Inside Riding Trainers. I nearly left and excused myself the first time. I’m not a Dad. Oops! But there were lots of moms too and some cat and dog parents in for the mix. The only really Dad feature were the jokes. So many Dad jokes. But the pace was good, the ride was well organized, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of what for most people–judging by time zones–was a quick ride before dinner.
This week I’ve shared a post with my online teaching community, The Activist Classroom, about Sarah DeLappe’s amazing 2016 play, The Wolves. The play follows nine powerful young women, 16- and 17-year-olds, through their indoor soccer season; in it I find a different kind of future to the one that Elizabeth Warren imagines when she fears, in her primary concession speech on 5 March, that we might need to wait four more years for an American woman to come into real power.
If you’re wondering how to inspire your teenage daughter – OR your teenage son, or young people of all genders around you… and maybe yourself too! – this post is for you.
Last night, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary race, leaving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to duke it out for a shot at Agent Orange in November. She was the last of a remarkably diverse group of contenders, ground-breaking numbers of whom were women. I read, crestfallen, all the commentary on the “fall” of Warren last night and this morning, as it tried to remind me that, in the end, being smart, experienced, level-headed, and a powerfully galvanizing public speaker was not enough, is never enough, for a women to overcome the “electability” factor.
Sitting at lunch yesterday with a feminist friend and colleague from the states, we commiserated; “I don’t think we will see a female president in our lifetime,” she said.
As she reached the final stages of this primary race, Warren stood unabashedly for every smart and capable woman who has ever been asked to stand down, implicitly or explicitly, because of her gender. She was a warrior on the stage, calling out privilege and hypocrisy. In one of my favourite moments from the primary race, she asked an Iowa debate crowd to look around them: “Collectively,” she said, the men on stage with her “have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in, are the women, Amy and me.”
True to this fighting form, Warren’s concession speech last night spoke directly to the pedagogical consequences of her departure. “One of the hardest parts of this,” she said as she conceded the competition, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.”
Given America’s penchant for supporting diversity in theory, and then choosing male, White supremacism in practice, I’m not sure four more years (as my friend and colleague noted) is going to do it. And the US is hardly alone here; Canada has had but one female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and she was the “fall guy” who took the political hit after the collapse of Brian Mulroney’s neoliberal Tories in the early 1990s. There are lots of other examples I could cite from the political landscapes of the so-called “developed West” (Julia Gillard, anyone?), but I’m getting tired just thinking about it.
(Thank heavens for, and long live the reign of, Jacinda Ardern, and shout out to the amazing women fighting for political justice in so many other countries around the world.)
So: let’s turn away from politics for a bit, and let’s think about that charge of four more, long years.
What can, and will, our young women learn in those four years about their strength and their power, as well as about the consequences of that old patriarchal saw, “likability”? How might we foreground – give space and light and air and time to – the former, and use them to challenge the misogynist perniciousness of the latter? What tools are already in place for us to share different kinds of lessons about our collective feminist capability, about young women’s overwhelming strength?
It so happens, this week of all weeks, that I spent part of Monday reading a terrific play, The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe. The Wolves follows the eponymous team of indoor soccer players, nine 16- and 17-year old young women, through the winter bowels of their season. They warm up, play, and warm down again; get sick and get better; discuss the difficult material they are learning in school (the show opens with a volley about the ethical complexities of the Khmer Rouge!); talk frankly about both their bodies (pads or tampons?) and about their creepy coach (who once asked them to warm up in their sports bras… He never appears on stage; he’s plainly not a factor in their incredible on-field success.). Finally, they weather a terrible accident together.
Contrasting shots of the same moment, Still Life with Orange Slices: off Broadway, left, and at Streetcar Crowsnest, right.
Across five scenes we watch them be, variously, athletes, students of the world, and complex individuals, together; there are tougher girls and quieter girls, the brainy girl and the new girl, but nobody is a stereotype – no-one is just one thing. They are a group, finding their (incredible, near-unbeatable!) strength together, coordinating their play together, growing into their power together. They are vulnerable but they are also a team of winners – and they know it.
I’m currently writing about The Wolves for a collection of essays about sports and performance; I was invited to contribute by colleagues who know I have a side-line in feminist sports writing. (If you’re reading this on Fit is a Feminist Issue, please check out The Activist Classroom, my other online home!) I gamely said yes to this invitation because the topic interested me, but I didn’t suggest The Wolves as my focus; the editors handed it to me, and until this week I hadn’t realized what a remarkable piece of teaching – let alone what a great piece of drama – it is.
Lots of young women have poor memories of grade-school gym class, and conflicted, if not difficult, memories of playing on sports teams as adolescents or teenagers. My own memories of childhood softball and floor hockey, high school track (VERY briefly), and university rowing (ditto) are of a reproduction of failure: I was larger than the average girl, I felt awkward in my body, my hand-eye coordination was a bit crap, and I received the kind of feedback from coaches (as opposed to, say, actual coaching from coaches…) that reaffirmed my cementing view of myself (fat/uncoordinated/not a good enough girl on-field or off). Eventually, even when I think (now) I could have succeeded brilliantly (track; rowing), I gave up, because I couldn’t overcome that inner sense of failure – not just failure as an athlete, but failure as a woman.
(Side note: none of the coaches I worked with helped, not women nor men. Amazing how well we reproduce patriarchy on the sports field, when we aren’t thoughtful about our words and actions! I can empathize fully with the Wolves; I’d have left my coach in the stands too, if I could have.)
The Wolves ends with the kind of plot twist you might expect in a lesser piece of work, but as in its handling of young women athletes, here it defies expectations. Nothing gets wrapped up. Fights are not resolved; they are just sidelined while the team holds space for one another, with imperfect generosity. The young women warm up, move their bodies together, and talk. Then, all of a sudden, one of the team’s moms appears.
She is the only “adult” in the show, and she’s onstage only for about five minutes. But this is long enough for her to interrupt this young women’s space, this circle of astroturf and passing games and honest, difficult girl talk. She seizes the space, not aware at all of how she’s usurped it. The teammates sit and listen, stunned but unfailingly kind. Eventually, she leaves, and they elect to chant their battle cry. Huddled together, faces away from us, their song builds, their bodies bounce, then jump, then fly: WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES. WE! ARE! THE! WOLVES!
I wonder, this morning, whether Elizabeth Warren is maybe that soccer mom at the end of the play. Whether she has perhaps underestimated the circle of women around her, misread the signs. Do we need to wait four more years to put a woman into “real” power, to overcome the ridiculous bullshit that is the “electability” factor? Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps we need to look away from the old messaging, and perhaps we also need to look toward new spaces to locate the women’s power that we can’t yet fully see. In Sweden, Greta Thunberg started skipping school, sat down in front of a government building, and started a global movement. On their suburban astroturf in the dead of winter, The Wolves sounded their battle cry, and changed the shape of “girl plays” forever.
Let’s listen to these powerful young voices, honour them in the spaces they have adopted as their seats of power, and encourage them to re-conceive what power means – over the course of these next four years, and beyond.